It’s that part that brings on the shock and awe. And to listen to a big Krell amp in 2013 is to reacquaint yourself with the shock you had when you first heard what a big Krell can do. I used the Krell duo on the end of several pairs of loudspeakers, but none made so deep an impression as what they did to a pair of first generation ProAc Studio 140. These loudspeakers are very easy on the ear, but can waffle a bit in the bottom end. They often end up being used with nice, soft-sounding low power Class A amps (I routinely use them with a Sugden A21se). But hooking them to a Krell 402 was like changing the speakers for bigger, better models. The bass was far deeper, far better controlled, the dynamic range seemed wide, the sound just hung together better. I could go back, but I’m not sure I’d want to.
It would be easy to just fall back on audiophile recordings to highlight this, but it’s something that transcends those sensibilities. Play something a bit more gritty - some live Rory Gallagher for example – and the loudspeakers ‘nice’ reputation goes out of the window. Play the dark and brooding HDTA_welcome oblivion album and the world is a claustrophobic place with an underlying air of brooding malevolence. They do the same with bookshelves too; the control it bestows on the bottom end is prodigious, whether that bottom end is full range or stops well into the 80Hz region. I don’t think anyone in their right mind is going to partner these babies with a pair of the excellent B&W PM1 top-end standmounters, but if they did, the level of bottom end they could muster would be something close to scary. Of course, when in its natural home of full-range loudspeakers needing a bit of poke to drive them, it really comes into its own.
It’s not just about power and control. Spiderman’s Uncle Ben once said “with great power comes great responsibility” (OK, it was actually Voltaire, but he wasn’t played by Martin Sheen in the movie version) and the Krell delivers both in equal measure. What surprises most people about the Phantom II/Evo 402e combination is just how un-Krell it sounds. There is a perception that big solid-state (as in Krell) means steely sounding, but this has the opposite effect; it’s inviting, almost analogue-like in its presentation, with a top end that goes on forever and sounds lovely doing just that. It’s the ideal foil for ribbon tweeters and can even pull back raspy metal dome tweeters from the brink; neither rolled off nor blunted, this presentation just extends naturally to the upper limits of both ears and speakers. Yes, it’s an analytical sound, but not in the clinical way, and not necessarily so analytical that it’s in constant search of the right components; it’s analytical of musical content, rather than component content. A good recording (HDTA_ again) sounds remarkable, a bad one (Gary Clark Jr) sounds execrable. Honesty does take its toll when playing the worst excesses of the Loudness War. The Krells also exhibit some of that hard-to-pin down ‘musicality’, in that good pieces of music are fun to bop around to. If there’s a bet, it won’t accent it, but neither will it shy away from it. The accent is on detail retrieval, frequency extension and soundstage, but there’s no major absence of enjoyment in the process, despite the entreaties of some of the low power set.
In fact, the downsides for the power amp are not musical ones; it’s a heavy and hot thing. Fully packed, it weighs as much as Oscar de la Hoya did when he won Olympic gold, and pumps out a whopping 6,400BTU/hour at full tilt, concentrated into a box only slightly larger than carry-on luggage. That means you need a team of people to lift it, and extended listening sessions can be seen on your fuel bills. However, it’s great for winter listening though, as your family can huddle round the amplifier while you hear fabulous sounds.
Most of this review has focused on the power amplifier, because it’s the stronger of the two products. But let’s not paint the Phantom II in a bad light; it’s an excellent preamp, exceedingly quiet and exquisitely detailed to boot. And the two work really well together. However, I maintain the Phantom II is icing, while the 402e power amp is the cake. Put another way, I can envisage more people using the power amp with another company’s preamplifier than I can see using the Phantom II with another brand of power amp. But I can also see many people taking the whole system option… and absolutely loving it! As a pairing, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Fifty issues ago, RG was distinctly cool on the original 402 and its 202 preamp partner. Whether it’s another set of ears, the changes to the Krell amps or just the way the world has changed since 2006, but I’m happy to report the Phantom II and Evo 402e report a far cleaner bill of health. The power amp in particular is a real star, but both come strongly recommended.
Krell Phantom II preamp
Inputs: 3x single-ended RCA (+tape in/out), 2x balanced XLR, 2x CAST
Outputs: 1x single-ended RCA, 1x balanced XLR, 1x CAST
Control inputs: 1x RS232, 1x RJ45, 1x 3.5mm remote IR, 1x 3.5mm 12V trigger
Volume Control: Balanced, current-mode, 16-bit, discrete resistor ladder
Frequency Response: 20Hz-20kHz ±0.02dB (0.1Hz-1.5MHz +0dB, -3dB)
Dimensions (WxHxD): 43.8x9.7x46.4cm
Krell Evolution 402e
Inputs: single-ended RCA, balanced XLR, CAST stereo pairs
Outputs: 2x Krell binding posts
Power output: 400W RMS at eight ohms, both channels driven, 800W RMS at four ohms both channels driven
Output voltage: 160V peak-to-peak, 57V RMS
Peak output current: 37A
Dimensions (WxHxD): 43.8x24.8x56cm
Krell Industries Inc.
Tel: +44(0)208 971 3909